When Harmony Café, a downtown Appleton coffee shop and eatery with a mission of providing a space that welcomed all, closed in 2014, Matty Burns was one of many loyal customers who was crestfallen.
Burns, who teaches gender studies at Lawrence University, came across the College Avenue café soon after he moved to Appleton in 2008 and was immediately drawn to its “check it at the door” anti-discrimination policy. The business provided a safe space to people regardless of ethnicity, religious belief, gender, age or sexual orientation.
The concept stuck with him, so when years later he and two friends decided to open a restaurant, they knew instantly what to call it. Harmony Pizza Café opened on West Wisconsin Avenue in December, carrying on the mission of its predecessor — while at the same time dishing up farm-to-table Neapolitan pizza.
Burns devised the idea with two former Lawrence students and friends of his, Polly Dalton and Oren Jakobsen, who run Field Notes Farm in Custer. Dalton and Jakobsen had run an experimental pop-up restaurant in Amherst, using a bakery during its closed hours to make pizza for Central Waters Brewery. Bolstered by its success, they decided to turn their efforts toward developing a permanent restaurant.
The group used a GoFundMe campaign to raise $6,000 to buy a pizza oven. Dalton and Jakobsen, who also own a cidery, now serve as advisers to Harmony Pizza. Burns owns the restaurant with partners Pete Smaby, a retired banker, Ronan Christman and designer Michael Gerwe.
For Burns, who still teaches full-time, running Harmony Pizza is much more than a side hustle.
“In terms of my hours and my sweat and my blood, this is my No. 1 main hustle I’ve had in my life,” he says.
The group embarked on an ambitious schedule to ready the restaurant. They leased the building, a former bakery, in May and began remodeling the dilapidated space in hopes of having it ready for Bazaar after Dark on Wisconsin Avenue in September. Instead, it opened three months later, less than an ideal time for opening a restaurant, Burns says.
Nevertheless, people are responding positively to the business’s pizza menu designed to please palates from vegan to vegetarian to carnivore to gluten-free. The eatery, which is open for lunch and dinner Thursday through Saturday, boasts more than 1,100 Facebook followers and overwhelmingly positive reviews.
A location on Wisconsin Avenue, a little off the beaten path of high-profile College Avenue, was always part of Burns’ plan. Bazaar After Dark, Pulse Young Professionals Network’s smash-success event, made its debut on Wisconsin Avenue in 2016, and that served as an inspiration for Burns.
“Why can’t we have this spirit, this experience inside a place every night of the week on Wisconsin Avenue?” he thought after attending the event.
The restaurant’s simple pizza, salad and beer menu and limited hours mean Burns can juggle both his jobs. Julia Blair, one of Harmony’s chefs along with Forrest Bricco, says the restaurant uses high-quality local ingredients while keeping prices affordable. She aims to add pie to the menu in the future.
“We all … care a lot about the nutrition of food, and the fresh food that’s been harvested recently is so much tastier,” she says.
For Burns, it’s about more than providing delicious pizza, though. When he first encountered the original Harmony Café and its anti-discrimination policy, he saw it as a sign of fearless community leadership. It’s a mantle he took up with Harmony Pizza.
“If you want to change the world, you have to appeal to as many people as possible but still make your principles clear,” he says.
In addition to providing a welcoming space, Burns has created the Pay it Forward gift card, which allows patrons to donate money in any amount to provide free pizza, no questions asked, to anyone who needs it. He’s spreading the words about the program to organizations such as Homeless Connections and Harbor House Domestic Abuse Programs.
Shannon Kenevan, a co-founder of the original Harmony Café, couldn’t be more pleased to see Harmony Pizza carry on the tradition. For some who loved Harmony Café, having that safe space was absolutely lifesaving, he says.
“It wasn’t just a coffee house, but really a vibe,” he says. “It’s a place for folks who don’t necessarily feel safe everywhere else.”